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The Tablets Must Be Crazy!

November 5, 2012

Click on the image to OLPC Flickr Photostream

Anyone remember The God’s Must Be Crazy? It was a fabulous film which started almost as a travelogue, describing urban Johannesburg and then juxtaposing that against the tribesman of the Kalahari desert. One tribesman receives an empty Coca Cola bottle that falls at his feet, as if given by the gods, in fact it was chucked out of a plane. The film describes how he and his tribe try to work out what to do with it,  but so divisive is this new toy that the tribesman decides the gods must be crazy and so he goes on a journey to the edge of the world to return the offending bottle – not so with tablet computers!

In a recent experiment the organisation One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), decided to do precisely that (well not chuck tablet computers out of a plane) but take them, leave them and come back later to see what the children had done with them

“I thought the kids would play with the boxes.” (Hell, what parent hasn’t watched their small child discard the expensive toy and gather hours of entertainment out of the box.)  “Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day.” so said Nicholas Negraponte founder of OLPC.  Not only did they start using the tablets, they started to recite the alphabet (these tablets were programmed in English, which does beg the question of technological imperialism – but that’s another blog) anyway the users got round the camera blocking lock and hacked Android – nice!

“The meteoric rise of modern instructionism, including the misguided belief that there is a perfect way to teach something, is alarming because of the unlimited support it is getting from Bill Gates, Google, and my own institution, MIT. “ Nicholas Negraponte in his own article on this process.

That phrase “the meteoric rise of modern instruction, including the misguided that there is a perfect way to teach something” must have resonance with every teacher in this country who has ever been inspected. The constant contortionist revisions conducted by teachers attempting to adapt their style in the classroom to the latest fad from Ofsted, or senior management, is an attempt to fit into this idea that there is a perfect way to teach. The problem is, that in our effort to pursue this pseudo perfection we may very well find ourselves out of a job.

On the one hand the vision of OLPC which I have always admired, combined with the vision of organisations such as the Khan Academy even the elite iTunes U (see this blog for more – onlinelearninginsights) suggest a new world of learning cheaply,  resources readliy accessible to all without, as Negraponte puts it, the industrialisation of teaching that has confined it to measuring progress and target setting that measures the teacher rather than the creativity, imagination and curiosity of the pupils. Un-programmed learning, he states is similar to the process of creating software, the trial and error mechanism is the way children learn, pretty much from the moment they are born and the tablet and computer are compatible with that process. This then is the way of the future, bye bye teacher hello tablet, Skype and an archive of online tutorials updated by a shrinking number of experts.

“Ah but what about personal contact?” Thus says the old fashioned complacent teacher, book in hand, powerpoint just about replacing chalk and talk, still wielding the red pen and the paper mark book. “Students will always need personal contact.” Yep that’s what the music business said about vinyl and now the album compilation barely exists!

Of course when print on demand became a real prospect people said that this would be the death of the book and in some ways it has been – just check the remainders shops, but in other ways reading has never been more popular. I don’t think J K Rowling, (Harry Potter) Stephanie Meyer (Twlight) or Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games) are suffering to much from the death of the book, or for that matter Ian Rankin (Rebus). Book publishing has gone through a massive change, the author can get access to the reader directly, but books still exist.

There is still a need for the real, the communal and the personal: in music, stadium rock and gigging are still a massive part of the industry; why else do people go to the cinema in droves, to watch a movie they could see at home in greater comfort? So yes there is still room for personal contact, but how much do they really need? In music, books and journalism a lot more is being done for  a lot less. Journalists barely get paid any more, musicians gig for peanuts, authors publish and be damned or at least they don’t get paid, some get famous via the wire, the rest do it for the joy of it, most of them didn’t see it coming and teachers may well be on the cusp of the same fate – if the industry of teaching breaks down, how many will be left and how many will do it for the joy of it?

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